New Orleans bounce artist and reality TV star Big Freedia
got closure in a months-long housing voucher case in which the performer admitted using nearly $35,000 in Section 8 funds. Freedia avoided jail time but must serve three years on probation — including submitting to regular drug testing and performing 100 hours of community service — and to pay full restitution.
"I apologize to my New Orleans community," Freedia said Aug. 25 in U.S. District Court. "I'm embarrassed of my conduct."
Reading a letter to the court, Freedia — in a shimmering black blazer and long blonde hair — thanked probation officers for guiding her through substance abuse treatment, which she was ordered to receive (along with a stay in a halfway house) after failing a drug test
earlier this year. "It was an awesome course," Freedia said. "The people were amazing."
"I'm planning to do a lot for New Orleans," Freedia said, "to keep putting it on the map."
According to prosecutors, Freedia submitted an application to HANO for Section 8 assistance in March 2009, listing her monthly income at no more than $1,000, and disclosing no other assets. Starting that July, Freedia received Section 8 subsidies at about $521 a month for a house on Bayou Road. In November 2010, Freedia moved to Warrington Drive and submitted a request for tenancy approval to HANO. Freedia then started receiving housing assistance to the tune of $695 a month at her new address beginning in 2011. Starting in February 2011, Freedia attended annual recertification meetings with HANO.
In total, Freedia received roughly $37,622 in assistance from July 2009 to November 2014. Her annual disclosed incomes were $0 in 2011, $14,400 in 2012, $12,000 (plus a one-time $2,000 gift) in 2013, and $12,000 in 2014.
Prosecutors argued Freedia "knowingly understated” income and assets for the purpose of receiving Section 8 benefits, and if Freedia had reported that income correctly, it would have disqualified her from receiving those benefits.
"I was on subsidized housing for many years before my financial situation changed," Freedia said in a March statement
following an announcement of the charges. "I quickly found myself in a new economic structure and, frankly, knew little about how to handle my money. It wasn’t until recently (after I had stopped receiving housing vouchers) that it became very clear I had received assistance to which I wasn’t entitled. It was an oversight — but one that I take full responsibility for. "
Freedia pleaded guilty
in her initial court appearance. The case opened a nationwide discussion
on the transformation of public housing to housing assistance and the traps, failings and corruption of localized programs aimed to benefit lower-income and elderly residents — programs that are at once difficult to get into, with long waiting lists, and difficult to leave, particularly for people with unreliable income.
U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg didn't argue with U.S. District Judge Lance Africk's sentence but reminded the court that roughly 20,000 people are on a waiting list for housing assistance in New Orleans — Africk also corrected Freedia in that voucher theft was not a "victimless" crime.
"Please don't take my kindness for weakness," Africk said in his closing remarks. "You're on the right track, I can see that. ... You did have a significant drug problem ... You needed help, you took advantage of it ... This is day by day ... You need to be a role model."
Africk also warned that if Freedia does "violate the terms of your probation, we're going to have a major problem." Africk told Freedia to avoid the pressure of drug use at concerts and on tour.
Following the sentencing, Freedia's attorney Tim Kappel said "although the current status of marijuana is in flux around the country, we respect that the judge and the conditions of probation were violated."
"I talked to Freedia earlier today, asking, 'How is it, not performing using marijuana?'" Kappel said. "And she said it was just amazing. ... She's seeing her performance in a whole new away, making sure the performance is right."
Kappel said Freedia — who has volunteered with HIV/AIDS organizations and Habitat for Humanity, and plans to help with Louisiana flood relief organizations — will continue volunteer efforts beyond her court-ordered community service and probation. For now, Kappel said, Freedia will "get back to the business of representing New Orleans in a positive way and move on."